Articles

Ode to the Australian Outback through Dorothea McKellar

by Ellen & David Hill

At Davy Byrne’s pub in Dublin, Leopold Bloom famously lunches on a cheese sandwich and glass of wine in the groundbreaking novel Ulysses. The closest thing you can get to a gorgonzola sandwich these days is an appetizer of fried brie wedges with a fancy crosshatched pattern of raspberry sauce on the plate. You can still get the glass of burgundy though – or the Chilean red or the French white.

MY COUNTRY

The love of field and coppice, of green and shaded lanes,
Of ordered woods and gardens is running in your veins.
Strong love of grey-blue distance, brown streams and soft, dim skies-
I know but cannot share it, my love is otherwise.

I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror- the wide brown land for me!

The stark white ring-barked forests, all tragic to the moon,
The sapphire-misted mountains, the hot gold hush of noon,
Green tangle of the brushes where lithe lianas coil,
And orchids deck the tree-tops, and ferns the warm dark soil.

Core of my heart, my country! Her pitiless blue sky,
When, sick at heart, around us we see the cattle die –
But then the grey clouds gather, and we can bless again
The drumming of an army, the steady soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country! Land of the rainbow gold,
For flood and fire and famine she pays us back threefold.
Over the thirsty paddocks, watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness that thickens as we gaze.

An opal-hearted country, a wilful, lavish land –
All you who have not loved her, you will not understand –
Though earth holds many splendours, wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country my homing thoughts will fly.

-Dorothea McKellar, 1904 

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“I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.”

Do I?

I live in Australia and there is no better country in which to reside, with its freedoms, its wealth, opportunities and safety.

But now I find myself in its red centre, the scorched ochre-coloured deserts that stretch into the horizon’s shimmering haze.

The air feels gritty and dry. My hair is brittle, my skin flaky. I know that everything here hurts, injures and kills.

And yet, gazing across the silent lonely plains, I feel what a 19-year-old Dorothea McKellar (1885-1968) must have felt all those years ago when she penned one of Australia’s most famous poems, My Country, when homesick in England.

In my home city of Sydney, we feel the strength of the sun’s rays but not its harshness; we have sweeping plains, but they are now covered with endless rows of new houses; I live in one of her rugged mountain ranges, but my towering leafy trees offer shady respite.

Here in the vast wilderness there seems to be nothing by McKellar’s far horizons. Words of The love of field and coppice, of green and shaded lanes, / Of ordered woods and gardens is running in your veinsis meaningless here.

Rather, this is McKellar’s pitiless blue sky, / When, sick at heart, around us, we see the cattle die – country.

Out here, the McDonald Ranges are no fuzzy-topped mountains emanating a soothing blue haze, but a jumbled stretch of rocky outcrops and hills that appear much larger and further away than they really are because the pathetic scrub of vegetation is no more than a few patches of scrub and that accursed spiky buffel grass.

This is one of the most isolated and arid places on earth, a place where you can wander far into the horizon and not see another soul. A place where all there is for company is the melancholy “Ark, Ark, Aaaah” of a lone crow, the crunch of your feet in the never-ending dirt and the gentle wailing of the breeze. Where the sun beats down so hard it feels like it’s pushing you into the rock hard earth.

There are sand dunes here, but great swaths of desert have been swept bare of sand by the driving winds and left as a pavement of tightly packed stones. The rabbits introduced by English settlers in 1859 nearly stripped the landscape of even its grasses until a deadly myxomatosis virus brought them under control in 1950.

Here in the second largest desert in the world, clouds become a myth and the clumps of spinifex grass haul themselves out of what must be imaginary moisture. This desert of 1.3 million sq miles receives just a Biblical rich man’s drop of water on its tongue – 5 inches a year. Some parts of central Australia only get relief once or twice a decade, just enough to torment. This collection of small deserts is called the Outback, and takes up 44 per cent of the continent.

Hot air masses keep moist air from penetrating the desert, but the low eastern highlands of the Great Dividing Range create a rain shadow and wring the moisture from south eastern trade winds.

Mile after mile of river and creek beds wind their way through this parched land, baked to that red dust and rock in the merciless Outback sun. The “Floodway” signs that appear at regular intervals along the highways seem ludicrous as the waterways snake through the landscape as a mocking reminder of the thundering rains that will surely come.

But then the grey clouds gather, and we can bless again / The drumming of an army, the steady soaking rain, McKellar tells us encouragingly.

Then myriad dry lakes fill with water and the lowest point on the continent, the Lake Eyre Basin covering half a million square miles, floods as the rivers drain into its bowl.

But sometimes nature taunts the thirsty tongue and parched earth. The rains didn’t come last year and the Todd River remains a shortcut walkway into the town of Alice Springs from outlying settlements.

Out here, extremes in weather rule the lives of farmers, Aborigines and tourists alike. There’s no fighting against flood and fire and famine.

But like Dorothea McKellar, who captured the spirit of this land so long ago, the harshness of the Australian Outback is indeed Core of my heart a willful, lavish land.

McKellar was so right when she wrote: All you who have not loved her, you will not understand.

The Outback is a desolate place for those who are lonely, but it provides great peace and healing for those who seek solace in its solitude.

Ellen and David Hill have a combined 40 years newspaper experience and now travel the globe as Deep Hill Fine Art Media in search of new travel experiences, interesting people, fascinating stories and mesmerising photographs. Deep Hill photos are available at www.deephill.com.au.